In the latest and perhaps the most surprising rebuke of attempts to reform Texas higher education, 22 prominent Texas A&M alumni formed the “Alliance for Texas A&M University” to educate the A&M community about reforms that could compromise their university’s academic reputation.
In an open letter released Wednesday, A&M alumni voice concerns about “the extraordinary level of political intervention in our university” and call the reform proposals “naive and in some cases, self-serving proposals from inexperienced organizations and individuals.”
The reform proposals to which they are referring are efforts by a small — but apparently influential — group of conservatives to adapt the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s “Seven Breakthrough Solutions to Higher Education.” The foundation’s proposed reforms include separating research and teaching budgets, diminishing the importance of non-revenue generating “soft” research and generally turning Texas state universities into degree factories focused on bottom lines, not enlightening minds.
Until now, most opposition to the changes has come from UT System students, administrators and alumni, and we’re glad to have support from members of the other tier-one state university.
The Aggies’ jump into the fray of research-gate is a significant step in the fight against reforms for two primary reasons.
First, while UT has been fighting to prevent the reforms’ implementation, A&M already has experienced their impact firsthand. Last year, A&M sparked controversy when it began compiling information about the revenue individual professors generate under the guise of transparency and accountability typical of the foundation. Professors were evaluated by subtracting their salary from “teaching revenue,” which was determined by adding the tuition from students the professor teaches among other factors. Additionally, the professors were judged by the research grants they obtained for the university.
The effort was supposed to simply determine whether professors and departments were pulling their weight, but outraged professors felt they were being judged by their financial contribution to the university, instead of their academic ability.
The Association of American Universities, the organization that designates top-tier status to research universities, objected as well. In a letter to the chancellor of the A&M system, AAU president Robert Berdahl urged the university to resist foundation reforms. A&M also adapted another foundation reform of rewarding professors who receive high student ratings.
With firsthand experience of foundation reforms, the Alliance for Texas A&M University’s denunciation is especially promising. Unlike the UT System, where reforms have thankfully been contained to discussions, studies and overpaid advisers, Aggies join the protest with the credibility of having experienced such reforms and subsequent backlash from academia.
The other reason the alliance is encouraging, and surprising, is it positions prominent Aggies directly against one of A&M’s most influential alumni, Gov. Rick Perry.
Perry, through his power to appoint regents, is the reason the foundation’s reforms even crept into the conversation despite being virtually universally panned by higher education experts. He is revered among Aggies and famously takes a hands-on approach to his alma mater, involving himself in matters ranging from the university’s administration to the job security of the football coach. In many ways, Perry is A&M’s ambassador to the public at large.
Perry’s place in the Aggie community makes the alliance’s rejection of his plans all the more prescient. For prominent alumni of a university that prides itself on solidarity and loyalty to very publicly rebuke one of their own sends a powerful message about the severity of the situation — and the threat Perry’s changes present to Texas higher education.
For all the fun involved with the UT-A&M rivalry, it is important to remember we are the only two top-tier public universities in the state, and our fates and interests are intertwined. While we revel in A&M’s athletic inadequacy and general inferiority complex, we hope the school continues to grow academically and its reputation is not tarnished by ill-conceived reforms. We applaud the Alliance for Texas A&M University and hope our universities and alumni bases can work together to protect the integrity of higher education in Texas.